A Child’s Christmas in New York

Week IV

Seeking comfort: Caitlin with Augustus John after Dylan’s death.
(Photo: Nora Summers)

Seeking comfort: Caitlin with Augustus John after Dylan’s death. (Photo: Nora Summers)

Years and years ago, when I was a boy, when there were wolves in Wales, and birds the colour of red-flannel petticoats whisked past the harp-shaped hills, when we sang and wallowed all night and day in caves that smelt like Sunday afternoons in damp front farmhouse parlours, and we chased, with the jawbones of deacons, the English and the bears, before the motor car, before the wheel, before the duchess-faced horse, when we rode the daft and happy hills bareback, it snowed and it snowed.

But here a small boy says: “It snowed last year, too. I made a snowman and my brother knocked it down and I knocked my brother down and then we had tea.”

There are many recordings of Dylan Thomas reading his poems and stories. He had a rich, deep, confident voice, with no trace of an accent. From 1950 to 1953 he made four lucrative tours in America, often addressing audiences of 1000 or more. He delighted his audiences. He was a conjuror of words and images. Like the famous Oscar Wilde tour of some 60 years previously, there was an exotic aura about Dylan. He was one of the last Romantic poets, with a reputation for wildness, but with a voice that would have charmed angels. He read his poems, told stories, presented extracts from work in progress, notably Under Milk Wood, Reminiscences of Childhood (including parts of A Child’s Christmas in Wales ), and read other poetry (notably Thomas Hardy ). All this, when sober, he presented beautifully.

Unfortunately, his drinking and erratic behaviour when drunk was beginning to dominate his visits there. There was an element of tension in every audience as it wondered whether he would arrive on stage the worse for wear. Nevertheless, money was his principal objective, and the returns were good. He always turned up.

He and Caitlin, with their three children, lived frugally at the Boat House in Laugharne. America was the opposite. Good hotels, adoring audiences, plenty of dollars to spend, and a succession of bright, intelligent women, who were happy to share their beds with him, all made it a kind of paradise for Dylan.

When he came home Caitlin was jealous and discontented. She felt trapped by domestic demands, and frustrated that she was not able to develop her own artistic talents. There were rows and alcohol-fuelled fights. When at least one American girl (the writer Pearl Kazin ), who saw Dylan as a sort of Byron or a Keats, followed him back for assignations in London, Caitlin became absolutely furious.

‘That’s my record’

There was an interesting business proposal that attracted him for his fourth, and fatal, visit to the States. He had been working on his anecdotal retelling of a Welsh Christmas from the viewpoint of a child (part of which I am quoting in this Diary ). In 1950 he sold what he had as a ‘work in progress’ to the American magazine Harper’s Bazaar for $300. Readers loved it. He was approached by two college graduates, Barbara Holdridge and Marianne Mantell, who had read the article, and heard Dylan’s fine voice. They proposed that he read his Child’s Christmas on a record, and they would pay him $500 for the first 1,000 records sold, and 10 per cent per record after that.

On October 20 1953 Dylan arrived in New York, complaining of chest trouble, relying on an inhaler to aid his breathing. There were reports that he was suffering from blackouts. There was the usual round of invitations, receptions, attendances at a reading of Under Milk Wood, and then a lively affair to celebrate his 39th birthday. He felt unwell and left early. Early in November the air pollution in New York was critical. Dylan spent part of the days in bed. Persuaded by friends to join them for drinks on the evening of November 4, he was out on the tare. He returned to his hotel (The Chelsea ) in the early hours, to announce ‘I have had 18 straight whiskeys. I think that’s my record.” He collapsed into an alcoholic coma.

Drunk out of her mind

He was taken to St Vincent’s Hospital, a Catholic institution. But word spread that he would not recover. Friends gathered outside his room, and along the corridor. Caitlin heard the news in Laugharne. Friends booked her on a flight to New York. She arrived at the hospital jet-lagged and drunk. She is reported to have demanded: “ Is the bloody man dead yet?” Coming into his room she became hysterical. She climbed on his bed, attacked the doctors and nurses, smashed a statue of the Virgin Mary, and screamed at the injustice that her Dylan was dying. In what must have been an appalling scene she was forcibly restrained, and committed to a psychiatric clinic on Long Island. She was taken away in a strait jacket.

Dylan died on November 9, still in a coma. His tragic, very public, and sensational early death led to a huge interest in his life and work. Ironically, the big money from his writings, which he so deservedly earned, did not materialise until after his death.

“But that was not the same snow,” I say. “Our snow was not only shaken from white wash buckets down the sky, it came shawling out of the ground and swam and drifted out of the arms and hands and bodies of the trees; snow grew overnight on the roofs of the houses like a pure and grandfather moss, minutely-ivied the walls and settled on the postman, opening the gate, like a dumb, numb thunder-storm of white, torn Christmas cards."

“Were there postmen then, too?”

“With sprinkling eyes and wind-cherried noses, on spread, frozen feet they crunched up to the doors and mittened on them manfully. But all that the children could hear was a ringing of bells.”

“You mean that the postman went rat-a-tat-tat and the doors rang?”

“I mean that the bells the children could hear were inside them.”

“I only hear thunder sometimes, never bells.”

“There were church bells, too.”

“Inside them?”

“No, no, no, in the bat-black, snow-white belfries, tugged by bishops and storks. And they rang their tidings over the bandaged town, over the frozen foam of the powder and ice-cream hills, over the crackling sea. It seemed that all the churches boomed for joy under my window; and the weathercocks crew for Christmas, on our fence.”

Postscript: It took Caitlin quite some time to recover. She was just 40 when Dylan died. She found Laugharne impossible to bear without him. She moved restlessly between Ireland and Europe. But now, thanks to the royalties from her husband’s works, she was a relatively wealthy woman. Whether she missed the sunny days of her youth in Clare, or with the Johns in Dorset and Hampshire, or that she was just fed up with old, draughty houses, she discovered the sun. With her children, she settled in Rome. She wrote two books, Leftover Life to Kill, and Not Quite Posthumous Letters to my Daughter. After a time she stopped drinking completely. She met film assistant Giuseppe Fazio. She fell in love, and lived with him in Sicily. At the late age of 49 years of age she gave birth to Francesco. She died July 31 1994, and is buried beside Dylan at Laugharne.

Incidentally the two American graduates, Holdridge and Mantell, are credited with launching the audiobook industry in the United States. A Child’s Christmas in Wales became Dylan’s most popular work in America. It is still a delightful read, especially this time of year. It has never been out of print.

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